Ghost Refuge | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
It was the 1970s, and high up in the Chacaltaya Mountain in Bolivia, at 5,300 meters above sea level, it was very cold. The triple summit was covered with snow, and an icy wind was constant and blowing strongly. Up there, on the imposing glacier that overlooked the city of El Alto, was the highest ski resort in the world.
[Samuel Mendoza]: So the panoramic view was very white, the entire mountain. White, it was very pretty, and visitors liked it.
[Daniel]: This is Samuel Mendoza, 62 years old. He worked with his father, Alfonso, at the ski resort since he was about 15. The two of them spent entire weeks up there, on the mountain. And they went down just once or twice a month to their house in the city of El Alto, about an hour away. Samuel became used to living in that world, in that icy environment.
[Samuel]: The weather was very cold. You put a bucket of water out, and it would freeze quickly. You could ski almost all year round. There was a lot of snow.
[Daniel]: There was no shortage of work. He was mainly in charge of operating the ski lift, the means of transport that took skiers up from the shed where the motor was located to the summit; and from there, they made their descent down the slopes of the glacier. The ski lift was made up of only three parts: a very long steel cable, poles installed up the ski slope, and pulleys.
Year round, skiers of all types came, both beginners and professionals. They came from different cities in Bolivia and from all over the world: Brazil, Italy, Germany, the United States, France… The slope became the practice site for the Bolivian Olympic ski team. And South American championships were held there.
Samuel was almost always in the engine shed. At times, he would help visitors in the shelter above—a comfortable, warm lodge with a fireplace, little tables, and chairs to relax in. There was also a small cafeteria that sold food and beverages. It was a pleasant atmosphere that attracted more than skiers. Samuel remembers the visitors doing all kinds of activities.
[Samuel]: They made snowmen, scooped up snow, then they ate it as if eating ice cream. They took soda and mixed it with snow it to give it color. A Coca-Cola, like this…
[Daniel]: They had snowball fights. They lay down on the ground and made shapes with their bodies.
[Samuel]: And some went up to the first peak, and from there they would slide down using plastic sheets. And some, with sleds, also followed the road; they went down on sleds.
[Daniel]: Some carried large rubber inner tubes, climbed on them and went down from one of the glacier summits. Others brought food for picnics or walked along the routes near the shelter. Samuel loved being there. It was a place full of life. It seemed that the sound of people talking, of laughter, of skis on the snow would never end.
[Samuel]: Visitors said, “This is snow, we are eternal, we will never lose it.” “The ski slope will always be here, until the end.” “These are our mountains, they are eternal.”
[Daniel]: But everything that gave life to the mountain of Chacaltaya was at risk of disappearing.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Our senior producer, Lisette Arévalo, picks up the story.
[Lisette Arévalo]: From about the age of 8, Samuel dreamed of being surrounded by snow. He discovered skiing one day when he was visiting his grandmother, who lived next door to his house, in the city of El Alto.
[Samuel]: So she showed me, “I have a skiing magazine and I am going to show you someone skiing.” I would ask my grandmother, “Where is this mountain?” And she said, “Chacaltaya.”
[Lisette]: In the Aymara language, Chacaltaya means “cold bridge” or “bridge of winds,” and the name is due to its strong air currents and the glacier that covered its summit. Compared to other glaciers, the ice mass was considered small, but that did not make it any less captivating for high mountain athletes. Like Raúl Posnansky, the engineer who built the ski resort in the 1930s.
Born in Britain in 1913, Posnansky came to Bolivia as a newborn, when his family settled there for his father’s job. His father was an Austrian naval engineer and rubber merchant. Raúl was the oldest of four children and became a hydraulic and military engineer. It is not very clear when or how he became passionate about mountains and skiing, but he was an enthusiast of the sport from his youth. And in the 1930s, it was he who saw Chacaltaya’s potential to become a destination for skiers. He hired people to transport materials for the lodge and ski lift, including a motor. He built the first cabins, and to make it easier to get to the glacier, he even built a road that went from an altitude of 4500 meters up to 5300 meters.
Back then, this sport was not very big in Bolivia, but with the resort and the ski lift in operation, it quickly gained popularity among the middle and upper class of La Paz. Furthermore, unlike other snow-capped mountains in the country, Chacaltaya was close to the city, about an hour and a half away. And that is how in 1939, Raúl and a group of athletes inaugurated the Bolivian Andean Club. It was a meeting space for all fans of mountain activities.
A couple of years later, Raúl managed to get the Bolivian Congress to pass a tax law that granted the Ski and Mountaineering Federation—founded by him—one percent of Bolivia’s hotel revenue. With that money, he and his ski buddies built a higher lodge, near the summit. They also bought two buses and a new motor for the ski lift.
Raúl’s idea became a success. So much so that during those same years, the Bolivian Andean Club organized the first South American ski championship, with participants from Argentina and Chile. And at the end of the 40s, the first Bolivian national ski team was created. The team would participate in international and regional championships and, years later, in the Olympics..
As the years went by, the sport continued to gain popularity, and drew more and more people from La Paz. By the end of the 60s, when as a child Samuel saw the photo of the skier in his grandmother’s magazine, skiing was no longer unknown to the rest of Bolivians. And Samuel began to imagine himself in the middle of the snow.
[Samuel]: So in the magazine, I saw a person doing a descent, carrying his backpack and all. And I said, “One day I’m going to learn that, and I’m going to be like him, also making a descent.”
[Lisette]: It didn’t seem like a far-fetched dream. All his life, he had grown up seeing Chacaltaya. He felt the mountain close, right within reach, and thought that going would not be so difficult. Especially because his father already worked at the ski resort with the Bolivian Andean Club. And at that age he didn’t even think about the fact that skiing would require equipment—boots, skis, poles, clothes, goggles—things that were very expensive for his parents. They had five children—Samuel was the middle one—and his dad didn’t earn that much from his job at the lodge.
Back then, visitors paid very little to get in, just 10 US cents. And those who wanted could pay a monthly fee to be members of the Bolivian Andean Club and use the facilities indefinitely. The money collected was enough to pay Samuel’s father, but also to cover the maintenance costs of the facilities and the road. He worked alone. He was the only permanent guardian of the mountain facility.
And since he had to look after the resort, you could say that Samuel’s father lived up there because, as we mentioned before, he only went down to El Alto twice a month to see his family. And when he came down, he stayed for just one day, because he could not leave the resort unattended.
During one of those visits, Samuel told him what he had seen in the magazine, and that he wanted to be a skier.
[Samuel]: My dad also supported me. “Yes,” he said, “you must learn, son.”
[Lisette]: But he was only 8 years old, and it was not yet the time for that. His father explained that Chacaltaya was not as close as it seemed from the window of his house and that he could not take him to the mountain for weeks on end. Samuel was very little and had to stay in school. So he stayed at home with his mother and his four siblings… but with the promise that, one day, he would go with his father to the mountain.
Samuel didn’t mind having to stay and wait for the day when he could see the snow. He was a curious, active child and liked school. But nothing could beat his big fixation: the mountains. And not only Chacaltaya. He had also become interested in mountaineering as a sport and dreamed of visiting another of the snow-capped mountains that could be seen from his house in El Alto: the Huayna Potosí. Few things occupied his mind as much as the Cordillera Real Boliviana.
[Samuel]: I wanted to get there soon. To those places. I wanted to make snowmen. Go skiing. More than anything else, skiing on the mountains. My mind was full of all those things, you know?
[Lisette]: The wait ended when he turned 15, in 1975. His parents no longer had enough money for Samuel to continue in school. They couldn’t afford to buy all the required supplies. So just two years before completing his schooling, he had to drop out. Samuel didn’t argue. He understood the family situation.
But neither he nor his father wanted him to sit at home. So his father invited him to work with him, and Samuel happily accepted.
The first time Samuel went up to Chacaltaya, he and his father left the house at 6 o’clock in the morning. They boarded the minibus that his father sometimes took, the one that transported the miners. At Chacaltaya there were—and still are—several working mines that provide different minerals.
After a little over an hour of travel, they arrived at a station, and there they began to walk uphill along the road.
[Samuel]: We walked several kilometers. Little by little, I started getting tired; little by little, until we finally got there. It was cold that day.
[Lisette]: But he was dressed warmly. His father was familiar with that cold, and had prepared him with a warm jacket, rubber boots, gloves and eyewear to protect his eyes from the snow glare, or the reflection of the sun on the snow.
As they approached the ski resort, Samuel saw an Alpine-style cabin in the distance—wooden walls and a triangular roof. It was on one of the edges of the mountain. It contained the lodge where visitors used to take shelter, to drink coca tea and eat. He looked around and was impressed. Everything was white.
[Samuel]: When I saw snow for the first time, the mountain looked like a very beautiful place with a lot of snow. That day I felt very happy and full of joy.
[Lisette]: They arrived around 10 in the morning. They entered a wooden cabin that held the ski lift engine was the bedroom where his father spent the nights. It was small and had only the bed where the two of them would sleep. Since Samuel was not acclimatized to being more than five thousand meters above sea level, he immediately began to feel altitude sickness. He had a headache and felt nauseous, so he rested.
The next day, he woke up feeling better. He left the cabin and looked around.
[Samuel]: Very pretty, very close to the sky. You can see other mountain ranges beyond, you know? Huayna Potosí, Condoriri, Ancohuma, you can see Lake Titicaca on the other side.
[Lisette]: You can also see the Sajama, the highest snow-capped peak in the country, and part of the city of El Alto and part of the city of La Paz.
Samuel was on cloud nine.
Right away, his father asked him to help operate the ski lift. He gave him instructions: for example, that he should put water and gasoline in the engine and keep it on from 9 to 5, so that skiers could get on whenever they wanted.
It was a job that required a lot of concentration and responsibility, because if they didn’t manage the engine well, the skiers could get into accidents. So sometimes, they couldn’t even stop to eat. Especially on weekends, when there were more people.
During the week, however, the visitors to the mountain were mostly mountaineers who went with tourist guides to go practice climbing, trek some of the paths, or climb one of the peaks and take pictures of the landscape. On days when there were no skiers, Samuel was in charge of maintaining the ski lift cable, greasing the pulleys, and sometimes digging out the cable, which would get buried under heavy snowfall.
According to Samuel, he and his father were the only ones who worked all year round and directly for the Bolivian Andean Club. So in addition to operating the ski lift, they were also in charge of cleaning all the facilities, the bathrooms, the cafeteria, and the lodge where there were beds so that the athletes could spend the night or rest. They received a salary for all this work. It wasn’t much, not even enough to cover their expenses and those of their family in El Alto.
In the lodge cafeteria, there were other employees who were sometimes hired by the Club to sell their products up there.
[Samuel]: Since there were a lot of people, it was profitable. They sold hot chocolate, sandwiches, mate…
[Lisette]: Those were simple meals, easy to prepare by boiling the glacier ice itself. They couldn’t offer much more because carrying food or firewood to that altitude from La Paz or El Alto was not easy. Especially because of the heavy snowfall that would cover the road or make it slippery.
It was hard work, and living on the mountain was not easy. But, from the first season that Samuel spent at Chacaltaya, he fell in love…
[Samuel]: I felt happy. Being at those heights. Seeing panoramic views like that…
[Lisette]: Especially because once there, in those first weeks, he was able to try what he had always wanted: skiing. One day, when there were few visitors, Samuel asked to borrow from his father some equipment that the Bolivian Andean Club had for rent at the resort. His father found him some boots, skis, poles and a helmet. Samuel was very excited, although he was not sure how he should even put on all that gear.
[Samuel]: When I put on the skis for the first time, I didn’t know how to tighten the boots, adjust the skis…
[Lisette]: He practiced adjusting the bindings, which are basically the pieces that keep the person connected to the skis. It was rather complicated, but he was excited.
[Samuel]: I felt so happy the first time I put on the boots, although they were sort of heavy. I felt more or less uncomfortable the first time, because I wasn’t used to it.
[Lisette]: When he stood up to start heading for the ski slope, he felt like he was slipping. He supported himself with poles, but he still felt insecure. He knew he had to be careful not to fall and hit his head. Until he finally reached the flattest part of the slope and began, little by little, to push himself with the ski poles.
[Samuel]: Then I wanted to turn from side to side, to the left, to the right… And I more or less mastered it. Then I went to a small slope called Pista de los Tontos. They called it the dummy trail.
[Lisette]: They called it that because it was flatter than the rest. Perfect for beginners like him. But even if it was the easiest, he still hurt his knee trying to make a left turn on a small curve. But that didn’t matter. He skied for half an hour or so, and took shelter at the lodge when it started to snow. He was happy. He wanted to devote his time to this.
[Samuel]: I also planned to get better. Become a champion skier, that’s what I thought.
[Lisette]: For the next three years, Samuel continued working with his father. In his free time, he continued practicing his skiing, perfecting his technique and, in fact, began to participate in championships. And the rest of the time he climbed the peaks, worked as a cleaner, and ran the ski lift for the skiers. He enjoyed this new routine, but, when he turned 18, he had to leave the mountain. He had to report for mandatory military service.
Two years later, when he had finished, he returned home to El Alto and also to his house in the mountains. He continued skiing and participating in competitions. He would go down to El Alto frequently. There he met the woman who would become his wife. It was the early 80s, and Samuel was about 23 years old when he got married. They soon had their first child.
With a baby at home, Samuel started working full-time in Chacaltaya with his father. The story of his father’s absence when he was a child was repeated in his newly formed family. Samuel did not go down to his home in El Alto for weeks, and saw them only for a few days once a month.
He and his father lived for Chacaltaya. They were Chacaltaya. Until January ‘85.
One day, the ski lift battery died. It happened when it was very cold. So Samuel had to go down to the city of El Alto to have it fixed overnight, pick it up the next day, and return to the mountain. He spent that night at home with his family.
The next day, very early, he went to pick up the battery and took a ride from El Alto to Chacaltaya. This time he was accompanied by his younger brother, aged 7, who was bringing food for them.
[Samuel]: Little by little, little by little, I am going up to the Pampa. When I get closer, there was more snow. Then the driver said, “That’s it, I can’t go any further,” because the tires were skidding.
[Lisette]: Samuel got out of the car with his brother and carried the battery on his back the rest of the way. He was balancing the weight of the battery by carrying it on one shoulder for a while and then on the other. When they arrived…
[Samuel]: I went into the lodge, looked for my father, I couldn’t find him. Then I went into the kitchen.
[Lisette]: And he wasn’t there either. He went out to the parking lot and saw a group of men gathered near the edge of the mountain. When he got closer, he saw that they were lifting a body. He couldn’t believe it when he saw that it was his father, who had fallen down the slope due to the heavy fog.
One of the men who had helped remove his father’s body approached Samuel and his brother and said:
[Samuel]: “Be calm. You father has passed away. But you are not going to cry. Calm down, calm down, he’s sleeping.” That’s what he said. So that my little brother wouldn’t get all scared.
[Lisette]: But his brother did realize what had happened and started crying. Samuel was shocked, scared. Since it was snowing, they decided to put his father’s body in the lodge.
[Samuel]: I felt his body. And he must have just had the accident, because he was still warm.
[Lisette]: That same day, when it stopped snowing, they quickly began to do the paperwork to bring down their father’s body. They hired transportation from El Alto to take him to the house for the wake. He was buried the next day in the Cementerio General in the city of La Paz.
The members of the Bolivian Andean Club canceled a ski competition that was scheduled for the next day. Samuel recalls that his father’s death was announced in the newspaper and on the radio. For many, his father, Alfonso Mendoza, was a fundamental part of that skiing community. And also part of the mountain.
After his loss, Samuel, now almost 25 years old, decided that he would not leave his position unattended. Since he was now the only one working as a guard, it became harder and harder to go down to El Alto to see his wife, his first child, and the other four who would come later.
He saw them once a month and stayed with them for a day or two. Sometimes he took them up to the mountain. He regretted being away from them, but he felt that he had to return. And there, in the solitude of those mountain heights, Samuel remembered his father constantly.
[Samuel]: I would look up and down the road, but no, my father never appeared. That made me sad; I felt like crying because I could no longer see my father.
[Lisette]: The years went on that way, until around the end of the ‘90s, when he began to notice changes in the mountain. The most obvious was the warmth. He no longer needed to dress so warmly in his daily life. But the threat became more evident one morning, when Samuel saw something unusual.
[Samuel]: The cracks that have opened up pretty widely on the ski slope.
[Lisette]: And from those cracks…
[Samuel]: Only water was flowing. A lot of water. Like a very powerful river, making a lot of noise.
[Lisette]: A terrifying noise—the noise of the glacier, which was beginning to melt. And it wasn’t going to stop there.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Before the break, we met Samuel Mendoza and saw the best years of the world’s highest ski resort on the Chacaltaya glacier. But by the 1990s, Samuel began to notice a change in the mountain. The glacier was melting.
Our senior producer Lisette Arévalo continues the story.
[Lisette]: Those changes that Samuel began to notice more frequently were due to El Niño. A natural climate phenomenon caused by the gradual warming of the Pacific Ocean that influences the climate in various parts of the world.
El Niño had hit Bolivia hard when it first occurred in the mid-seventies, and was even worse when it arrived in the early 1980s and when it hit Bolivia again in the late 1990s. At that time, the same time when Samuel was observing the changes, El Niño was altering the country’s water cycle. Some areas flooded, while others, such as the highlands where Chacaltaya is located, experienced severe droughts.
That, of course, caused it to snow less at the summit during the Bolivian winter. And so there was not enough snow to accumulate on the glacier and protect it from the sun’s rays. So when the glacier ice became exposed to the radiation, it began to melt little by little. And that caused yet another warming effect.
When a glacier melts, its tongue—which is the mark in the rock that defines the border between what is ice and what is the valley—recedes, exposing the rock beneath. And when that black rock receives the sun’s rays, it also heats everything around it. This is known as the edge effect.
All this meant that, by the end of the ‘90s and beginning of the 2000s, the glacier had irreversibly lost half of its thickness, two thirds of its total volume, and its surface area was reduced by more than 40%. And Samuel, of course, noticed how the effects were getting worse.
[Samuel]: It was starting to get very warm every October, in November it was even warmer and warmer and a lot of water was flowing. Wow, the water was like a river, going all the way down…
[Lisette]: Those rivers of water soon affected the ski slope. Instead of a flat, smooth surface for skiers, the terrain now featured a series of hills and rocks. It was increasingly dangerous to ski in those conditions. So Chacaltaya’s slopes started losing visitors. Gone are the days when they were packed with skiers attending national and international ski championships. And by 2005, very few were still going down on skis. One of them was Samuel.
[Samuel]: I was still skiing, but championships could no longer be held. The track was too short. By 2005, only half of the glacier was left, only half the mountain.
[Lisette]: With the melt, increasingly deeper cracks opened up in the ski slope. Samuel and the skiers who were still trying to ski would place pieces of wood to create a kind of bridge across the cracks. They saw it as a temporary solution, because what they really wanted was for the glacier to return. It was a devastating scenario that haunted Samuel even in his dreams.
[Samuel]: In my dream, I was on the slope, always on the ski slope, walking. And a lot of water was flowing, a lot of water was flowing, it was wearing down, all of it.
[Lisette]: In August 2006…
[Samuel]: We have held an Andean ritual with members of the Andean Club to keep it snowing. A fire so that the Achachilas will make it snow, so that there is snow.
[Lisette]: The Achachilas, the ancestors who inhabit the mountains and who, together with the Pachamama, are the great protectors of the Aymara people. They bought a mixture of sweets, colored wool, herbs and coca leaves and placed it all on top of firewood. They doused it with alcohol and lit the fire to burn it.
But the glacier shrank each year, the heat increased, and the ski slope continued to deteriorate. The snow was gray, and the athletes who went left trash lying around—plastic tubes, paper, cans, iron and corroded climbing hooks. And that garbage, in turn, trapped solar radiation, produced heat and made the thaw even worse. For Samuel, the situation was becoming unsustainable.
[Samuel]: I was getting desperate. And yes, if there’s not going to be any water, where am I going to get it for the restrooms?
[Lisette]: Previously, Samuel used ice from the glacier as a source of water, but with the melting and pollution of the remaining snow, this was now impossible. Around that same time, he started to bring drinking water from his house in El Alto. He had to use his own pocket money to pay for transportation because, with fewer and fewer people going, the Bolivian Andean Club no longer had the budget to cover those extra expenses.
Samuel could not stop grieving about everything that was happening, and some visitors shared his sadness. They said:
[Samuel]: “What a shame, yes, our mountain is running out of snow. I think it’s going to get worse,” said others. Others said, “It will never snow again.”
[Lisette]: But he also met visitors who did not seem to care about what was happening.
[Samuel]: They hardly realized it because, since they live in the city and have everything, water, they have everything. They hardly felt it.
[Lisette]: There were others who said that no doubt it would snow again and everything was going to be the same as before. And Samuel, who deep down wanted to cling to any hope, thought…
[Samuel]: Hopefully. “It could also improve,” I said. But we had faith that it would snow, but then it just got worse, it got worse.
[Lisette]: Because what was happening to the glacier was part of a decades-long climate process that has not stopped to this day.
The first signs that the Chacaltaya glacier was shrinking were noticed in the 1940s by a group of scientists.
Ten years earlier, the same skiers who created the resort and visited it frequently had scientific interests and installed a weather station and climate observatory at the top of the mountain. There, the snowfall and the recession of the glacier were studied constantly. They also investigated changes in the climate of La Paz, 28 kilometers away from Chacaltaya.
By 1945, after a few years of studies, it was possible to notice, from the observatory, a decrease of almost one meter of the glacier and a large number of avalanches. Then El Niño arrived, and with it what we described in the ‘70s, ‘80s and late ‘90s, melting the glacier even more.
By the 1990s, when El Niño’s effect on Bolivia was the greatest, glaciology experts began to analyze and measure the changes in the glacier. They used years of information collected at the climate observatory and by scientists visiting the mountain, such as mass balance records, topographic measurements, and photogrammetric reconstructions. That is, they used aerial photos taken in 1940, 1963, and 1983 by the National Service of Aero-photogrammetry and the Military Geographic Institute of Bolivia to look at the changes during those years.
Comparing the 1940 photo with the 1963 photo, for example, it was clear that the glacier had shrunk. It was not a change that alerted scientists, as it seemed to be a moderate recession. But when those same images were compared to images from the ‘80s, when the El Niño phenomenon was intensifying, they saw that it had decreased by 58% and at an accelerated pace.
The speed of the melting that Samuel saw before his eyes in the 1990s had been a continuation of that process. And when, in 2000, the thickness of the ice was reduced to less than 15 meters, scientists from the Institute of Hydraulics and Hydrology of the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés predicted a fatality: that the glacier would disappear completely in 15 years. That is, in 2015.
The calculation reached the ears of Samuel and the Bolivian Andean Club.
[Samuel]: I shared their same thoughts. If the scientists said it is going to disappear, it will surely disappear. I felt sad.
[Lisette]: In 2007, when the same Club members realized there would be no turning back, they tried to find solutions. They wanted to make a track with artificial snow at the lower part of the mountain, using snow-making machines. To achieve this, two cannons were needed—one with compressed air and the other with pressurized water—which had to be placed at a certain height and at a certain temperature. And they could operate only at night so that the heat of the sun would not interfere with the amount of snow produced. Before installing all the infrastructure, Samuel recalls that a small test was done. Using water and some small machinery they had gotten at the Club, they managed to make snow.
But there were several problems. Creating artificial snow was not only an ambitious project, but also very expensive. And it required a lot of water. This is Samuel:
[Samuel]: It is very difficult to bring water up from below. Since it’s not raining, it’s not snowing. What do you make the snow with? Are we going to make it work? That’s why that project stopped.
[Lisette]: Furthermore, the scientists who were consulted on the subject warned that it was not feasible to do something like that on a tropical glacier like Chacaltaya. These types of glaciers respond to climatic variables such as humidity, cloud cover, and type of precipitation. Creating artificial snow resolved only one of those variables: the amount of rain. The other variables causing the thaw would still be there. Furthermore, bringing water from other places meant transferring bacteria that were from a different area, affecting the nature of the place.
When this idea was discarded, thought was given to the idea of creating a ski slope with an artificial canvas. But installing a 300-square-meter canvas would have cost about 500 thousand dollars at that time… So that proposal didn’t go anywhere.
Given the imminent thaw and the lack of visitors, the people who managed the restaurant in the lodge also began to leave. They took their furniture and all the kitchen utensils. In 2009, the Bolivian Andean Club also left and moved its headquarters elsewhere. Maintenance was stopped on the facilities. There was simply no income to keep the lodge alive any longer. The glacier was dying, and with it, what was once the highest ski slope in the world.
But Samuel was still there. He would not give up hope. He was determined not to leave the mountain.
[Samuel]: I always prayed for snow to fall whenever it was cloudy.
[Lisette]: And the snow did return, but only for brief periods. It fell and melted quickly. The conditions weren’t there for the summit to be covered with ice again.
And so, in 2009, the Chacaltaya glacier disappeared. Six years earlier than scientists had predicted in 2001. And although the climatic conditions that led to the meltdown were known, what was not known with any certainty at the time was why it had disappeared so quickly.
[Isabel Moreno]: Well, what we can now affirm with certainty is that urban pollution reaches as far as Chacaltaya.
[Lisette]: This is Isabel Moreno, a Bolivian scientist who has studied the geology of glaciers. She has spent the last 10 years researching climate change, aerosols and gases in Bolivia from the observatory of the University of San Andrés in Chacaltaya.
With the work that she and a large group of scientists from the University glohave carried out, they have been able to determine that air pollution causes direct and indirect effects on glaciers.
Before going into the explanation that Isabel gave me, I want to first explain what makes up the air that reaches the mountain.
[Isabel]: These particles are called aerosols, and they are tiny—less than 1/5 the diameter of a hair, that tiny. So these particles exist in nature from dust emissions, volcanic emissions, fungal emissions…
[Lisette]: These particles exist so that the water vapor in the air can condense around them and form clouds.
[Isabel]: And from there, well, a lot of things happen. These droplets can meet each other or can go into an area of cold air, where they freeze and fall as snow. And this is needed in order to generate precipitation.
[Lisette]: But the air also contains particles generated by industrial smoke and vehicles in the cities.
And this brings us to the first indirect effect of air quality on melting ice. Because the mixture of these two types of particles, natural and industrial, multiplies the number of condensation nuclei in the air.
[Isabel]: The water vapor that is available in the atmosphere, which has not varied, is distributed among all these nuclei, but making even smaller droplets. And these droplets may be so small that they no longer meet each other, or coagulate, or come together to form a big, fat, black drop that falls. Like the bottom of dark clouds, which needs large drops. Since they are many tiny ones, they are, let’s say, lightweight. So the wind just blows them away, it blows away the cloud, it blows away the humidity, and there is no precipitation.
[Lisette]: It doesn’t rain and it doesn’t snow either. And, as we said before, you need snow to cover the glacier and protect it from solar radiation.
The second indirect effect has to do with how these dirty particles heat up what is around them and create a heat island effect. This is a phenomenon caused by human activity, which raises the temperature of cities.
[Isabel]: On the glaciers that are closer to the cities, in all the Andes you can have this effect. By having all these dirty particles, the air around the glacier heats up and this generates local warming. Like when you are wearing a black jacket and you stand in the sun, it heats up, you heat up, and so do the particles and everything that is in them, the air that is around them heats up and that can, well, melt the snow that is around.
[Lisette]: And then there is the third effect, which is more direct and likewise has to do with these particles of urban pollution. In addition to warming the air around the glacier, they also land on the snow and make it dirty.
[Isabel]: They settle and remain on top of the snow. If they are particles that absorb light, that absorb radiation, then the glacier is going to heat up and therefore melt.
[Lisette]: It is an effect that has also been observed from the archives of other glaciers in mountains near Chacaltaya, such as, for example, the iconic Illimani.
[Isabel]: And yes, this is also observed. Like the ice is getting dirtier. In recent decades, with the increase in vehicle traffic and urban growth, this has been observed a lot.
[Lisette]: These three effects of the air on glacier melting are compounded with what we explained before. The whole glaciological part—the edge effect, the need for fresh snow at certain times of the year, the effect of the El Niño phenomenon, and especially the general rise in the temperature of the planet.
And there is one last factor that Isabel told me must be taken into account when talking about glaciers: the Amazon forest because their connection makes them both exist.
[Isabel]: In other words, the Andes exist because the Amazon exists. Also the snow that reaches the… the central Andes, Bolivia, Peru, comes from the Amazon. It is air from the Atlantic Ocean that has been transported through the Amazon forest to the Andes. And that’s the snow we have. So, if there is no change in Amazonian practices, in deforestation or the terrible burning that happens every year, the glaciers are also threatened.
[Lisette]: And, therefore, a lot is also lost at the ecosystem level.
[Isabel]: For example, a source of water to feed the wetlands, the mountain peat bogs is lost in the dry season.
[Lisette]: Those are a type of wetland that accumulates water on the surface.
[Isabel]: And these peat bogs have many functions. They are like a giant sponge that allows rainwater to enter the water table, which is renewed in the groundwater that many people use.
[Lisette]: The water tables or aquifers are located at a shallow depth below ground level. And, as Isabel says, these aquifers accumulate groundwaters, which are what provide people with fresh water through wells, for example. And the peat bogs that feed the water table…
[Isabel]: Also support grazing, for example, llamas, alpacas, and sheep. And when you can no longer keep this ecosystem alive, you can no longer maintain grazing, you can no longer have sustenance for the communities that live there.
[Lisette]: Then, people who live in those communities begin to migrate to the city. And in turn, cities are also affected because, without glacial meltwater, the supply of drinking water and hydroelectric energy in large cities such as El Alto and La Paz is put at risk.
Although in theory glaciers could be indirectly replaced with reservoirs to supply cities, glaciers are a very important water reserve all over the world. Their recession means there is less water to supply rivers and lakes, putting them at risk of drying up. And although there is no river running directly from the Chacaltaya to the cities, there are emblematic rivers of the city of La Paz that originate near Chacaltaya and receive water along the way.
And finally, when a glacier melts, it can cause damage to nearby communities.
[Isabel]: Lakes can form. And if there is a community downstream, it may be at risk if these lakes that are formed by glacial melting at the tip or on the edge of the glacier overflow and cause harm to the population down below.
[Lisette]: It did not happen with Chacaltaya, but it did happen in another part of Bolivia, in 2009, when a glacial lake in the Apolobamba region overflowed and destroyed roads, killed livestock, devastated crops and left the population of Keara isolated for months.
[Isabel]: So it is like a chain of disasters that may occur. So everything is very dry. When it rains, the water does not penetrate, it only runs off and there is a shortage of water. So, it is like a vicious cycle that can be started.
[Lisette]: This creates an entire process of adaptation to a reality without glaciers. And while some people see opportunities in this, such as using the stone found under the glaciers, either for mining or for construction, other people suffer other types of consequences. Isabel told me that there is something else that happens when a glacier disappears. Something intangible.
[Isabel]: It is a collective pain. It is a mourning. Which is very hard because it changes your entire context. People who are closer or who have a view of a glacier, let’s say, from their window, when they watch it disappear or when they see it dying, no, no, you can’t feel good. No, you can’t ignore it. So it produces something inside you that can be very hard or distressing.
[Lisette]: And that’s how Samuel feels it—distressing.
[Samuel]: Without snow, it’s a shame. It makes you want to cry. It’s like an abandoned place. This is what it looks like even from far off.
[Lisette]: When the glacier disappeared completely in 2009, the ski resort was officially closed. The engine house and the house where skiers met were left on the summit, surrounded by dirt and rocks. The Bolivian Andean Club continues to own the land, but this is no longer its official headquarters.
Samuel told me that he considered leaving the mountain and finding another occupation. But at the time, he was approaching 50 and he didn’t think it would be easy to get another job. He was only about 8 years from retiring, and he no longer stayed up there as long, but went down more frequently to his house in El Alto. So he reached an agreement with the Bolivian Andean Club in order not to stop his contributions to Social Security. Thanks to that, Samuel now sits on the club’s board of directors as secretary of works and transportation. An honorary title in a way, because he doesn’t receive any kind of remuneration.
In 2018, the lack of water forced him to stop living on the mountain completely.
It has been 14 years since the glacier, and what gave life to the mountain, disappeared. And yet, Samuel has not stopped climbing and taking care of the ghost lodge.
[Samuel]: I continue going up for the love of Chacaltaya. Since I have lived there, that is why I am also going up to see the cabin.
[Lisette]: He goes up about three times a week. Sometimes he walks up the road from the base of Chacaltaya. Other times he asks for a ride from passing cars or the miners themselves. He is usually accompanied by his older brother, Adolfo, who worked there with Samuel during the final years of the ski resort’s operation.
Now the two spend their time greeting the few tourists who go up to Chacaltaya, and charge them an entrance fee of 15 bolivianos, about 2 US dollars. But of course, the visits are nothing like they were before.
[Samuel]: People go now to see the view, to see how they feel physically at that altitude. They stay about two hours at most.
[Lisette]: What was once a special trip just to visit Chacaltaya has now become nothing more than a place to see in passing. But there is Samuel, ready to offer them coca tea or sandwiches and tell them anecdotes about what the glacier was like before. Sometimes, he shows them photos of the skiers that are kept framed and hanged on the walls.
The money he and his brother collect from the entrance fee is not much. But it helps them raise enough money to repair the constant leaks, buy materials like corrugated iron for the roof, and fix the windows that are sometimes damaged by strong winds. Samuel has also brought some furniture, such as tables and chairs, to make the lodge look in better condition.
It is hard work that has taken its toll over time. From so much walking up the mountain, now, at age 63, he injured his knee. This specially worries his wife.
[Samuel]: She no longer wanted me to go because she has seen the sacrifice I make. Walking, going up, and going down. “You don’t have to go anymore,” she told me. But because I love the mountain, I said, “No, I do have to keep going, because if I don’t go, who is going to go up there and see?” I told her.
[Lisette]: He feels that he cannot abandon that mountain that, in a sense, saw him grow up. Where he learned to ski. Where he spent so many years with his father working, and the place where he last saw him alive.
[Samuel]: For me it is a place where you can feel much better. With a lot of strength, with a lot of energy. As my home and a source of energy, that’s what it means to me.
[Lisette]: Samuel is nourished by the mountain, and the mountain is nourished by him. Because if he didn’t take constant care of it, it would be even more abandoned.
From time to time, he experiences little moments of joy when he sees a bit of snow falling every so often in the mornings. But when it melts a few hours later, he feels sad again. And despite everything, Samuel still holds out some hope that the mountain can once again be what it once was.
[Samuel]: If there is hope, it is that it may snow again. But it won’t be very soon. But someday it will snow again. And maybe I won’t get to see that. But I hope we have snow.
[Lisette]: But for the snow to return to Chacaltaya and so many other glaciers that have disappeared in the world, we have to do more than wait. It’s time to act. And we have less and less time.
[Daniel]: Lisette is a senior producer at Radio Ambulante and lives in Quito, Ecuador. This story was edited by Camila Segura, Natalia Sánchez Loayza and me. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Ana Tuirán with music by Ana.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Pablo Argüelles, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Rémy Lozano, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.